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Orthography in Linguistics

Hugh Zimmerbaum, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Hugh Zimmerbaum

    Hugh Zimmerbaum is a prospective PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures; After earning his BA degree in Literature with a concentration in Russian Studies in 2018, he spent two years as an EFL teacher in Russia.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What is orthography? Learn the definition and meaning of orthography. Learn about the different types of orthographies and related linguistic concepts Updated: 10/08/2021

Table of Contents


What Is Orthography?

Orthography is the convention used for writing a language; this is not, however, the same as spelling. Different cultures have developed various systems for recording their languages, ranging from logograms, symbols representing words or phrases, to alphabets. Some languages have never been recorded at all, while others are written in multiple orthographies. Written language inevitably differs from the spoken language it intends to represent. Aspects of dialect and intonation can be lost in the written form of a language.

The term orthography originates from the Greek orthographia, meaning "proper writing." The term took on something close to its current meaning, "branch of language study which treats of the nature and properties of letters," c. 1580s. Today, the term is used to describe all writing systems, including those that do not use letters. Review the following example sentences with the term orthography:

  • Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs represent a system of orthography.
  • Modern English orthography includes an alphabet and punctuation marks.
  • What are the pros and cons of our system of orthography?

Logographic Orthography

Logographic orthography describes a system of writing which contains logograms, symbols representing words or phrases (morphemes), rather than individual syllables or sounds. Logographic orthography predates the development of alphabets. Writing systems with logographic features include:

  • Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs
  • Chinese characters

Logographic systems of writing can contain elements of phonemic representation. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters have syllabic features.

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs. An example of a logographic orthography.

Syllabic Orthography

Syllabic orthography describes a system of writing which contains symbols representing syllables. Writings systems with syllabic features include:

  • Linear B, Mycenean scripting dating from around 1400 a.d.
  • Japanese
  • Cuneiform

Linear B plaque. An example of a syllabic orthography.

Alphabetic Orthography

Alphabetic orthography describes a system of writing containing symbols representing individual sounds. Writing systems with alphabets include:

  • The Greek alphabet
  • The Roman alphabet
  • The Arabic alphabet

Some alphabets, such as the Semitic alphabets, are consonantal writing systems because they contain symbols for consonants but not vowels. Alphabets that have symbols for both vowels and consonants are called true alphabets.

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  • 0:04 Spoken vs. Written Languages
  • 1:38 Orthographies and Alphabets
  • 3:45 Other Elements of Orthography
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Origins of Orthography

Although spoken language is widely believed to be a universal human competence, writing systems are relatively new. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Western writing systems are generally traced back to Sumerian orthography, developed in the 4th millennium BCE, called cuneiform. It does not seem to be the case, however, that Asian orthographies have the same source. Cuneiform, which was syllabic and logographic, eventually led to the development of alphabets, such as the Semitic alphabet, Greek alphabet, and Latin alphabet, which served as the basis for English orthography.

Even today, English orthography is not globally standardized. For example, British English orthographic practices favor the spelling colour whereas American English practices prefer color. Some countries have an official organization for standardizing orthography, such as the Academie Francaise in France, but no single organization exists for English. However, general practices in mass media and dictionaries do provide for a good deal of standardization. Some dictionaries, such as Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, is considered historical importance in standardizing English orthography.

Linguistic Elements of Orthography

In linguistics, several terms about orthography have been developed to describe types of writing systems, their elements, and general concepts related to the representation of meaning and sound through writing. Here is a closer look at a few of these terms.


Punctuation, the use of spacing and small marks called punctuation marks, is a feature used in many orthographic systems to divide the text into sections, such as sentences and clauses, as well as to aid interpretation. Notice how the interpretation of and intonation when pronouncing the following sentences changes on account of the punctuation:

  • You love green pea soup.
  • You love green pea soup!
  • You love green pea soup?

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between orthography and spelling?

Orthography is a broader subject than spelling because it looks at all aspects of systems used to record language in writing; this includes looking at systems that don't have an alphabet but use logograms and syllabaries. Orthography is also concerned with the relationship between what is written and what is spoken and conventions of punctuation.

What is an example of orthography?

Orthography can be used to describe any system of writing, whether it be the alphabet we use to write English or ancient writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphs.

What is the difference between phonology and orthography?

Whereas orthography is concerned with how humans record language in writing, phonology is concerned with the way humans organize language into speech.

What is the meaning of orthography?

Orthography is used to describe the writing systems which humans use to record their spoken languages. These can be logographic, syllabic, or alphabetic systems.

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